Over 20 U.S. colleges so far will require COVID-19 shots for on-campus students, but conservative lawmakers aim to block mandates for emergency-use vaccines.

Can Colleges Make the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory?


  • Over 20 U.S. colleges so far say students coming to campus this fall must get a COVID-19 shot.
  • At the same time, some states move to block COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
  • Schools already require vaccines, but can they require shots approved only for emergency use?

Last spring, a fast-growing list of colleges announced plans to move online. This year, a slower-growing list of colleges are announcing COVID-19 vaccination requirements for students. So far, more than 20 schools say students coming to campus this fall must be inoculated against the virus.

All adults in all states are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 19. College leaders say high vaccination rates among in-person students and employees will help campus life return to normal, but three state lawmakers and at least two lawsuits argue that such a mandate can't be implemented before the vaccine is fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The decision to mandate the new vaccine, according to one college leader, "takes away any ambiguity about whether individuals should be vaccinated." Meanwhile, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, a cornerstone of some colleges' vaccination plans, has been paused by the U.S. following six reported cases of severe blood clots.

Similar health issues occurred with the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, leading the U.K. to advise against administering the shot to people under 30.

Over half of college-aged Americans were willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 according to a December survey. A more recent sample poll of prospective college students found that 85% would attend a college that required the vaccine. Still, younger Americans, as well as Black Americans, are the least likely to want to be inoculated, raising questions about access and campus diversity.

Can Colleges Require the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Most U.S. colleges already require vaccines for viral diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella. The COVID-19 vaccines are still only approved for emergency use, however, which puts the new mandates in a legal gray zone.

Without approval from the FDA, Virginia Tech officials determined that they couldn't require COVID-19 vaccination. Harvard Law School professor Glenn Cohen counters that COVID-19 tests are approved under the same FDA emergency authorization — and have been required by colleges all year.

Some attorneys say colleges have the right to mandate the vaccine. Federal agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Education, have already permitted employers and school districts to require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Four states so far — New Jersey, Utah, Texas, and Florida — have moved to block colleges from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.

Beyond issuing guidance, the federal government leaves vaccination laws up to the states. Four states so far have moved to block colleges from mandating the vaccines. In New Jersey, a state legislator plans to block Rutgers University's mandate, the first one announced. The governors of Utah, Texas, and Florida have all signed legislation barring the requirement of proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

St. Edward's University, a small private college in Texas, had originally announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Following Governor Greg Abbott's executive order, however, the school now says it will give students the right to opt out.

All states require colleges to accommodate students who refuse a vaccine for medical reasons. Most states — save for California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, and West Virginia — also allow exemptions for religious reasons, for which no proof is required.

While exemptions may be easy to come by, some schools may choose to keep unvaccinated students off campus. At Brown University, for instance, students who refuse the COVID-19 shot must file a petition to study remotely or take a leave of absence in the fall.

Which Colleges Require the COVID-19 Vaccine?

A growing list of (mostly private) colleges and universities plan to require COVID-19 vaccination for on-campus students. Rutgers, Northeastern University, and a handful of Ivy League schools, including Brown and Cornell University, were among the first to issue such a mandate. More recently, Yale University, Columbia University, and Princeton University announced plans to require inoculation.

Several large public colleges, including The Ohio State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Florida, say they will not, or are unlikely to, mandate the vaccine. Other institutions, like the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, hope to incentivize students to get vaccinated.


Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images